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8/19/2014 by Eric Meyer
The problem with debates about Tibet, is that they typically escalate into emotionally charged disagreements over Tibet’s historic status as an independent nation, what territory constitutes Tibet today, and whether Tibet should be independent or remain part of China.
Amid such hotly contested narratives and political positions, it is hard for outsiders to avoid taking sides. The attraction of Jocelyn Ford’s new documentary “Nowhere To Call Home: A Tibetan in Beijing” (selected for a premiere at the U.S. at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on Aug. 23rd and 29th) is that it avoids this pitfall, and does so in a most convincing, emotionally engaging manner.
The first-time documentary director simply lets the life of her Tibetan protagonist unfold in front of our eyes, without interference or moral judgement. The upshot : in the film injustice is rife, but no single ethnic group has the monopoly of it.
At the heart of the story is the quest of a young Tibetan widow to give her son a better future. For Zanta, whose father-in-law refuses to allow her boy to go to school, this means escaping the village. She lands in Beijing where others from her village teach her to be a street vendor.
Filmed with a handheld camera on a shoe-string budget, this unscripted documentary is full of surprising twists and turns. Ford, former Beijing bureau chief for public radio’s Marketplace, becomes acquainted with her protagonist in a chance meeting on the streets of Beijing. Several years later Zanta phones her and, down on her luck, pleads with the foreign journalist to help send her son to school.
By the time Ford decides to start filming, she has been assisting with the boy’s school fees for a year. As the story unfolds, the audience discovers Zanta and her son’s lives are fraught with fear, uncertainty – and hope. Mother and child discover an universe at the crossroad of antique tradition and modernity. Zanta wants both the best of her Tibetan village – the source of her identity- and the brave new world, Beijing. In the capital she experiences unprecedented independence, opportunity and basic dignity unimaginable in her picturesque but traditional village.
Zanta, who has personally suffered from illiteracy, pursues a different life for her son. But she must overcome two giant hurdles: the staunch objection by her father-in-law— we discover why at the end of the film– and a hostile environment in China’s capital. Beijing is unwelcoming to poor economic migrants like Zanta, and Tibetans suffer even more as they are from one of the minority groups often vilified in China’s media for harboring separatist sentiment.
Ford faces her own moral dilemma, and she is not shy about exposing this in her film. On the one hand, the foreign journalist is self-serving. She wants to get an inside story about the life of a traditional Tibetan in contemporary China, something the regime in Beijing tries to hide by largely banning foreign correspondents from travelling to Tibetan regions. Ultimately it is the injustices suffered by Zanta, both in Beijing and in her village, that drag the journalist deep into Zanta’s life. It is an infringement of rules for reporters to interfere with the lives of their subjects. Yet, Ford deftly turns this around on the audience. Had she not violated this rule, the world would be less informed about the hardship of Tibetan women like Zanta, and, as a journalist, she would have been more complicit with Chinese censors.
One of the unexpected fruits of this long-term relationship– Ford filmed for three years– is a written contract between Zanta and her father-in-law that delivers an uneasy peace. In Tibet, a traditionally macho and patriarchal society, this is a novel development.
This is no moral fairy tale, but a story of the social change underway in some Tibetan areas, spurred on by economic opportunity and education. These seeds of modernity may empower women and put to rest the old Tibetan saying “women aren’t worth a penny.” In short, this is a film well worth watching for all those ready to put to test their preconceptions about the Land of the Snows.